150 Years of state education - A time to reflect

Published 28th October 2021

State schooling clocked up a key milestone in August this year as 150 years have passed since the Elementary Education Act of 1870 passed into law. This act was responsible for setting the framework for schooling for all children between the ages of five and thirteen in England and Wales.

Prior to the act, education had was provided by church schools, but there was no compulsion on any authority to provide sufficient school places. Education wasn’t publicly funded, there was almost always some cost attached to receiving an education, and school attendance was not compulsory even in areas where it was available. The act aimed to make school attendance free for all pupils, it didn’t quite achieve this, but instead, it ordered that a state education be within ‘reach’ of all children. Interestingly, the act also brought in the concept of compulsory quality checks or inspections for all state schools.

Out of the 4.3 million students of primary school age at the time (5-13), approximately one million attended voluntary schools, 1.3 million were at state-aided schools, but about 2 million did not attend any school.

Section 74 of the Act empowered school boards, if they wished, to make school attendance compulsory between the age of five and thirteen but exempting any pupil who had already reached the required standards (as set by the boards), those who were unable to attend due to illness, or if children were in employment or lived too far from a school.

The Sandon Act (1876), for the first-time compelled parents to send their sons/daughters to school between the ages 5-10. This was followed by the Elementary Education Act (1880) that enforced school boards to enforce compulsory school attendance from 5-10 years old. Despite this act, children deemed to have met the required standards could still be employed before the age of ten, with poorer parents often keen that they do so to bring an income into the household.

In 1893 the school leaving age rose to eleven, and in 1889 it rose again to twelve years old. Within years this had risen again to set a leaving age of thirteen (or again, when the required standards were deemed to have been met).

In 1889 the Technical Institutes Act was passed, giving powers to County Councils to raise a penny of additional tax to support the introduction of technical and manual instruction institutes.

The controversial Conservative Education Act 1902 (also known as Balfour’s Act) made radical changes to the entire education system in England and Wales. It weakened the divide between schools run by the School Boards and the 14,000 + run by the Church of England. Local Authorities were set up under this act and were permitted to set their tax rates…school boards were disbanded. Funds were provided to facilitate denominational religious instruction, owned mainly by the Church of England and Roman Catholics.

The Fisher Act of 1918 made full-time education compulsory up to fourteen and passed responsibility for all secondary schools to the state. Under this act, the grammar school and middle school system grew, but most pupils simply remained in elementary (primary) education up to the age of fourteen. The Fisher Act, for the first time, introduced compulsory part-time education for all pupils aged fourteen to eighteen. However, this compulsion was dropped as a direct result of spending cuts implemented in the aftermath of WW1.

For the first time, a 1938 committee report chaired by Will Spens advocated that pupil’s entry to schools should be based on intelligence testing.

The Education Reform Act 1944 responded to social and educational demands created by the war and the widespread desire for social reform. The Butler Act defined the separation of primary and secondary education aged eleven. This act also saw three distinct categories of school emerge:

  • Voluntary Controlled Schools - The state met costs, and the local education authority controlled the schools. The school kept the title deeds to the land but taught an agreed religious education syllabus. The Anglicans favoured this system.
  • Voluntary Aided Schools - These retained more significant influence over admission policies, staffing and curriculum. These had all their running costs met by the state, but only 50% of capital costs were state funded (increased to 75% in 1959 and now 90%). This system was favoured by the Catholics, with approximately half of all Anglican schools also adopting this system.
  • Direct Grant Schools - Former independent schools and town grammars who accepted a state grant for admitting a number of pupils who would receive free education while at the same time charging for others. The state had little control over the syllabus or admission policy, and the schools kept their title deeds.

Throughout this period of extreme change, the elite system of public schools remained practically untouched. The Fleming Report of July 1944 recommended that public school places be made available to state students under scholarships, but these recommendations were largely ignored.

Under the Act, the school leaving age was raised to fifteen with an aspiration to increase this to sixteen in time, but this did not occur until the early 1970s. Recommendations were also made for part-time compulsory education up to the age of eighteen, but once again, post-war spending reviews scuppered this recommendation. 

In 1965 in a move aimed at making selection on ability a thing of the past, the Labour government introduced the concept of Comprehensive education. This movement was venomously opposed by the grammar schools who lobbied hard with some counties maintaining the tripartite system.

In 1964 preparations were started to increase the school leaving age to sixteen. This policy was finally implemented in 1973. Many schools struggled to accommodate the extra year group, and the governments' solution to this was to send out flat packed temporary accommodation (Raising of school age or ROSLA blocks). These were intended to last for a few years as a temporary solution, but many are still standing and in use today!

Conservative governments from 1979 to 1987 enhanced vocational options (introduction of NVQs) within education as a response to rising levels of youth unemployment and introduced an assisted places scheme where gifted students who could not afford to attend fee-paying schools would be offered state funded places at these schools if they passed selection tests.

The Education Reform Act (1988) saw the introduction of a national curriculum and introduced ‘market forces’ to education, with schools publicly encouraged to compete against each other for the first time. The market theory, pared down, was that ‘good schools’ would grow and thrive and ‘bad schools’ would lose students and close. Formula Funding ensured that the most successful ‘growing’ schools were better funded, and shrinking schools had budget withdrawn.

Under this act, schools could opt out of local control by becoming grant-maintained and effectively funded directly by the government. National curriculum assessments were made compulsory for the first time. Grant maintained status was removed by the Labour Government 1997-2010 with schools given the option of re-joining the local authority or becoming a foundation school.

Under the Labour government, specialist schools were introduced, with these schools allowed to select up to 10% of their intake on their ‘specialist’ ability. The goal was to make all secondary schools’ specialist eventually. Vocational qualifications were restructured, and City Academies took over failing comprehensive schools receiving their funding directly from the government.

The Academies Act 2010 took this policy one stage further, with schools encouraged to become academies which gave them greater autonomy on curriculum and, notionally at least, on setting teachers salaries. This also led to mergers between schools to become one large school or part of Academy Trusts with central leadership and administration.

So why the history lesson, you may ask? I believe that we have reached a junction where a national debate on the style, content and structure of our education system is not only desirable but is positively essential if we are to adequately prepare our young people to live, work and flourish in an increasingly fast-changing world. I would argue that we collectively need to step back, reflect, and ask some difficult questions.

Change is difficult and is nearly always challenging; it is often easier to continue a well-trodden path that produces measurable results than it is to re-evaluate and set a different direction. With a few notable exceptions, the path that compulsory education in this country has taken has been predictable and staid. Leaving ages have changed, we have had moments in time when technical or vocational education has taken higher precedence, and recently we have developed something close to an obsession with measuring progress and comparing our data to that of countries that have little in common with us educationally or socially.

The fourth industrial revolution is not something theoretical that may hit us one day; it is already here. Career pathways are changing as the job market shifts and adapts to new ways of working, new demands set by emerging technologies, and the necessity to work in more sustainable ways. Add the market effects of Brexit and the need to re-evaluate post-COVID, and the time has never been better to debate if our current education system is indeed fit for purpose and explore how it could be improved.

Change takes courage and conviction; there will always be those who will question and resist. We need a courageous government capable of looking beyond the next election to the longer-term needs of the country.

Over the coming months, we will be opening a debate via social media and other channels, and we want and need your input, together we can do better.

Back to News